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Mark of the master

Mark Kozelek's last Irish gig was summer 2011 in St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny -- a beautiful place to see a great artist. There he debuted a hilarious new song UK Blues about the drudgery of touring -- and specifically the drudgery of touring Britain.

"Bristol, Bristol/People missing teeth /Is this really what people eat?" The song shows a wicked sense of humour that had the congregation in the pews laughing out loud. It eventually turned up on this year's album Among The Leaves -- the fifth under his Sun Kil Moon moniker (Kozelek uses different musicians in the studio but mostly tours alone now).

The title is a reference to a passage in a novel by Dublin-born crime author John Connolly, who is friends with the San Francisco-based singer.

Kozelek in particular takes a dim view of London, where he had a miserable experience playing an all-day music festival where he was all but drowned out by the neighbouring tent -- oh and there were people rioting and looting in the streets.

"Most people I know who grew up there have moved to California, so I know I'm not alone in my feelings about the place," he told Newsweek recently.

Quite what Kozelek thinks of Ireland he has yet to put in song, but he is always well received here when he tours, particularly Dublin where he has played the Olympia, Academy, Andrew's Lane Theatre, The Village, and next month, The Button Factory.

I remember one show here when he marvelled at the levels of public drunkenness he had to wade through to get to the venue. "Man, you guys drink too much! I've never seen anything like it," he said, startled, from the stage.

What he didn't know was that he had jetted in on the night of an All-Ireland Final, when the celebrations were in full swing. We can only be grateful that Arthur's Day had not yet been invented.

At another show here he was riled by fans near the front of the stage taking photos on their smartphones. He wasn't mad about the vase of flowers on the altar in St Canice's either!

But when he gets into his stride, his live shows can knock your socks off. His unorthodox open tunings and his habit of singing a little distance from the microphone add to his mystique, and lately he has developed a jaw-dropping mastery of the Spanish classical nylon guitar that adds an old-time quality to his songcraft.

You can hear this at its most raw and intimate on his new double live album, which is the soundtrack to last year's DVD tour documentary, which shows Kozelek travelling on his lonesome through an endless series of soulless airports and identikit hotel rooms and trying to summon up the magic every night on stage, even if the journey there has left him seemingly bored out of his skull.

The film serves a corrective to any aspiring singer/songwriter out there who thinks that life on the road is all glamour and glitz. (Unless, of course, he left those bits on the cutting room floor!)

There's a distinct sense of melancholy about the documentary, even as he pitches up in beautiful Spanish towns such as Seville.

There's also a memorable song, 'Summer In Chicago', on the new album in which he laments the changing demographic of his audience through the years. In his early days with his original band Red House Painters, pretty girls sought out his acquaintance; now, he sings, sadly, it's all guys with beards and tennis shoes . . .

These days, he rarely does interviews, and the ones he does are often conducted via email. But he's still liable to spring a surprise, such as when he appeared earlier this month on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in the US with hip-hop collective The Roots as his backing band.

In between the jokey couplets, though, Kozelek really has the power to move the listener in a way few artists can. His voice is deep and resonant, his guitar playing spectacular, his lyrics are epics of the human heart laid bare.

The Button Factory should be great. Just don't see him in Bristol.

Mark Kozelek plays the Button Factory, Dublin, on Wednesday, November 7.

Among The Leaves and Mark Kozelek: On Tour are out now.


Indo Review